In the heart of Santa Ana, between busy 1st Street and Santa Ana Boulevard, is a run-down, rust-colored building with a sign that reads Annie Mae Tripp Southwest Community Center .
Like many of the homes in the graffiti-splashed neighborhood, the center has a fence around its dirt yard and bars on its dusty windows, but everyone knows that at Annie Mae Tripp's place, the doors are wide open.
Seven days a week, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., neighborhood children attending the day-care program at the center play on the monkey bars or climb the poles of a swing set that has no swings, while hungry men, women and more children sit at picnic tables and enjoy hot breakfasts and lunches until the food runs out.
No one talks much about the late Annie Mae Tripp, but ask anyone working in the immaculate kitchen about the woman whose name was honored by the center, and he or she will loosen apron strings, pull up a chair and tell the story.
Tripp was a tough widow who supported eight children mostly from money earned cleaning houses, plus some Social Security.
In the fall of 1970, after suffering a mild stroke, she decided that her life's mission was to use her meager income to feed the poor. Her family couldn't talk her out of it.
Tripp's adopted daughter, Jean Sancho, 60, adjusts a blue bandanna that pulls back her hair, and remembers the reaction to her mother's idea. " 'My God,' we said, 'How can we feed the poor when we're poor ourselves?' "
Not only was the 57-year-old great-grandmother determined to feed the poor, but those close to her were destined to carry on her work.
It was three years ago Thursday that Tripp died at the age of 73. But the Southwest Community Center she started from the kitchen of her rented house on 3rd Street in Santa Ana continues to feed the community's hungry people everyday.
"I always thought I was too young to be doing all this," says Connie Jones, 37, who operates the center at its permanent location at 1601 W. 2nd St.
But Jones says she feels a certain responsibility to carry on Tripp's dream--and the dream is what keeps the center going.
Shortly after her stroke, Tripp asked God what he intended her to do with her life--since he had spared her from serious paralysis and death.
While she was still recuperating, she had a dream, and in it, God told her to feed the poor.
Without pause, Tripp began cooking hot lunches from the kitchen of the little yellow house with the white picket fence where her children were raised.
Tripp's doctors and family urged her to rest, but the strong-willed woman who had survived nine heart attacks was determined to carry out God's will.
With her small income, she prepared hot lunches, and without a car, she initially carried food to the Second Baptist Church, where people congregated for free meals, before volunteer drivers were found. "We were born and raised on welfare," says Tyrone Tripp, Annie Mae's son and president of the center. "We didn't have anything. But if our cupboards were full, she didn't care who you were, she'd feed you."
Within a month, Annie Mae Tripp decided she wanted to create a homelike atmosphere for the poor to come to for food. Bargaining with her landlord, a neighbor who owned a pet store at the corner of 2nd and Forest streets, resulted in a community center of her own.
Betty Thompson, 58, recalls the first days of the center, when Tripp would speak to community groups and churches, asking for support.
"She was a gutsy one. She would say things (at speaking engagements) and I would think, 'This is going to alienate the whole audience,' " recalls Thompson. "Then I would get up--this middle-class white woman--and try to make the whole thing palatable."
Thompson, who has since received her master's degree in social work because of her relationship with Tripp, says that the woman's cause appealed to members of the primarily white church they visited. Thompson says many church-goers wanted to help the poor but felt an inability to do so directly. Tripp bridged the gap.
Today, more than 30 churches in the county regularly help in the center's operation by bringing in hot lunches.
Every morning, cooks at the center heat up the griddle on the kitchen's big, black gas stove and fry pancakes, eggs or bacon, and boil oatmeal, signaling to the neighborhood the start of a new day.
"We try to give them a hot meal to start them off," says Sancho.
People waiting for breakfast to be served at 8 a.m. are put to work. "I have them wipe off the tables," Sancho says. "They help to keep the place clean. Plus it gets their blood circulating while we warm up the coffee."
The center is open for people to receive sacks of bread every day after lunch. Once a week, volunteers distribute bags that contain enough food staples to help an average family for two weeks. And there are free clothes for those who need it.